International Relations Korean War
Paul M. Edwards
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0219


The Korean War (1950–1953) was isolated between the patriotic conflict of World War II and the provocative battles of Vietnam and has been largely lost in the American memory. Yet it stands out as a significant watershed event that has left its mark on the nations involved ever since. Not only did the conflict change the nature of how wars were to be fought, but it also helped change the definition of victory. Beginning with an attack by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) on the Republic of Korea (South) in June 1950, the war dragged on for three more years and cost the lives of millions of persons. Seen by many as the first clash of the Cold War, it was nevertheless a line drawn in the sand, with the political and ideological positions of nations placing them on one side or the other. The Communist of North Korea formed a loose collaboration with Russia. The Western bloc, meanwhile, came forward to participate actually or symbolically in the conflict. Fought under the flag of the United Nations, the intention was to stop the invasion and force the withdrawal of North Korea’s forces from the South. Caught unaware and poorly prepared for another war, the United States gradually strengthened itself and halted the advance. After successfully accomplishing this mission, it was determined by the Truman administration, backed by the United Nations, that their forces should press north and put an end to the North Korea Army, in partial hopes of achieving the unification of Korea. For both military and political reasons, the Chinese intervened in October 1950, pushing the UN forces back to the south. The mobile war soon established a stalemate line near the 38th parallel, from which both sides participated in small unit engagements. After years of fruitless negotiations, a cease-fire was finally agreed to and, with the exception of South Korea, signed by the participants. The war, as well as American involvement, was never clear to the American people. Having been of minor interest during the fighting, it was generally forgotten once it was over. For nearly three-quarters of a century a cease-fire, but not an end to the war, has existed and been maintained by a combination of military threats, political diplomacy, and economic sanctions. The legacies of the war continue, and the nations are never far from war.


The fast, sporadic, and mobile character of the Korean War makes the dictionary and encyclopedia especially helpful tools, particularly for those in an introductory study. The multiple actions occurring on land, in the air, and at sea are more often organized subjectively than chronologically. Short-entry encyclopedias are also a very good source for beginning students, since each entry is generally written without reference to other topics. Most bibliographies of the Korean War are subdivided by subject. The unfortunate aspect of bibliographies is the speed at which they become dated.

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